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At the risk of stating the obvious, the end of the Civil War did not draw our nation’s struggle for freedom to a close. In the words of Fredrick Douglass: “Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins.” For both sides, “postwar reconstruction would prove to be a painful, slow and flawed, nightmare.” For the newly emancipated African-American community, the coming years would be marked by “ambiguity, tragedy and complexity.” (Jay Winik, April 1865, p. 381) As for white America – old hatreds, as the saying goes, die hard. It is far from a coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan would be founded in the year following the Civil War. Most of all, as Jay Winik explains in his study on the subject, it would be the world of race relations that would continue to suffer. In state after state, restrictive legislation regarding segregation, intermarriage, land ownership, voting rights, and countless other forms of racial repression would continue to dominate the American landscape. Not unlike our Passover story, the generation of the Exodus would not necessarily be the generation able to fully enjoy the taste of freedom.
All of which, I am sure, was not lost on Martin Luther King, Jr. as he sat in the Birmingham jail on that Passover day of 1963. In a passage that could have just have easily been written by Moses himself, King wrote: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” The brilliance of King’s rhetoric of civil rights was that he positioned his cause not as something new or revolutionary, but as the logical and necessary fulfillment of Lincoln’s vision. It was no accident that just a few months after Birmingham, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, King began his “I have a Dream Speech” with the words “Five score years ago.”
“In a sense,” King declared … “We’ve come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.”
From Brown vs. Board of Education to Rosa Parks to sit-ins and marches, every aspect of the Civil Rights movement leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, was an effort to fulfill the vision expressed, but not realized, by Jefferson. The Civil Rights Act itself would not mark the end of the journey, but just another step along the way. Just a few weeks ago, our nation observed the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday – March 7, 1965 – when a peaceful protest march from Selma to Montgomery sought to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which whether out of irony or intent, was named after a past Confederate soldier and Grand Dragon of the Klan. Not unlike Lincoln and altogether like Moses, having reached the mountaintop, King would not enter the Promised Land.
All of which brings us to our present day. It is April 2015, one hundred and fifty years after Appomattox, fifty years after Selma, and a week before Passover. Passover calls on us to reflect not just on the Jewish journey to freedom, but on the struggles of those still seeking to realize the biblical vision of the founding document of the Jewish people, a humanity created in the image of God, granted equal and infinite dignity regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. One need not look very far to know that we have yet to realize the expressed visions of the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. The events of Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and beyond make it abundantly clear that insofar as citizens of color are concerned, “we must continue to strive to finish the work we are in.” In the next few days, I will send an email and post on the synagogue website a haggadah supplement for you to use at your seder. [Scroll down and click on the pdf to download the haggadah supplement.] I encourage you to print it out and let it shape the discussions of your seders. Try to identify the pockets of injustice and inequality that remain on the American landscape and most importantly, commit yourself to the work yet to be done. It is neither the antebellum South, nor the 1960s – for that we can all be grateful. Though faded, the stain of our nation’s founding, nevertheless, remains. It will only be by way of sustained vigilance and activism of our generation and the generations to come that we will live to see it cleansed.
Or, better yet, in the recent words of our President at Selma:
“Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding our union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer. Our job’s easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge. When it feels the road is too hard, when the torch we’ve been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on [the] wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.’
We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar. And we will not grow weary. For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.
May He bless those warriors of justice no longer with us, and bless the United States of America.”
And may each and every one of us enjoy a happy, healthy and kosher Passover!